Beer Guy: Brewing good

“Corporate beer still sucks,” said the cheeky label on Elysian Brewing’s Loser Pale Ale. And then the largest beer corporation in the world bought Elysian.

Anheuser-Busch InBev’s buyout of Seattle’s Elysian Brewing in 2015 was a body blow for craft beer fans. Elysian was a pioneer in the vibrant Pacific Northwest craft beer scene. Led by brewmaster Dick Cantwell, Elysian created some great innovative beers like Dragonstooth Stout and Avatar Jasmine IPA. Loser Pale Ale celebrates Sub Pop, the Seattle record label that gave the world Nirvana. Loser’s ‘corporate beer still sucks’ tagline channels local hero Kurt Cobain.

Elysian isn’t alone, with AB InBev recently gobbling up craft brewers Goose Island, Blue Point, 10 Barrel, Golden Road and, right here in Canada, Toronto’s Mill Street. Other giants have picked up Lagunitas and Ballast Point.

Does it matter if your favourite indie ale is now brewed by a Belgian-Brazilian brewing behemoth? Yes, dammit—it does! The microbrew revolution started in the 1980s as a reaction to the bland homogeneity of beer caused, in part, by the consolidation of the beer industry into a few multinational giants. We must never allow the tyranny of insipid lager to return: you will have to pry my hoppy IPA from my cold, dead hands!

Of course, today with over 500 breweries in Canada and over 4,000 in the U.S., a return to the bad old beer days seems unlikely. However, if AB InBev’s proposed $108 billion takeover of SABMiller is approved, the merged beer colossus will have 30 per cent of global beer sales and 70 per cent of American sales. A brewing Goliath that size is tough for even the pluckiest David to fight.

But craft brewing is full of Davids with little fear of Goliath. They’re armed with great beer, of course, but their secret weapon is their close connection to their communities. Goliath can try to fake authenticity but more and more consumers aren’t buying it. I am especially heartened by younger beer drinkers. Some may mock the pretensions of the millennial hipster crowd, but at the core there is hunger for positive change and a belief that enterprises like breweries can blend social and commercial purpose. Being connected locally means brewing can be more a community process than a factory-led supply chain machine. Craft beer fans support breweries that brew their social values into every bottle.

You can see this in craft breweries in Alberta. Alley Kat, Wild Rose and Village have all chosen to go slow, not to expand too rapidly—some even deciding not to export their beer, and to focus on cultivating local supply. Phillips in Victoria focuses on sustainability and was voted the Green Company of the Year in 2015 by Drinks Magazine for their comprehensive green ethos. Across the Georgia Strait, Persephone Brewing is British Columbia’s first certified B (Beneficial) Corporation, valuing social and environmental return over profit. Meanwhile, down south a number of major craft brewers have become employee-owned corporations through ESOPs (employee stock-ownership plans). New Belgium, the fourth largest U.S. craft brewer, became 10 per cent employee-owned when founder Kim Jordan sold her shares to the employees. Deschutes, Harpoon and Odell are also employee-owned.

Back in Alberta, a change in government has meant a positive change in the support for Alberta craft brewers. Beer brewed in Alberta by small breweries is now taxed at a lower rate than beer brewed by large breweries and those outside Alberta, B.C. and Saskatchewan. Alberta craft beer drinkers may have to pay a little more for their favourite non-western Canada craft beers, but isn’t that a small price to pay to support your fellow Albertans brewing great beer right here at home?

Social good six-pack
Doing good by drinking beer? I’m in. You can find these beers at your local independent beer shop, like Sherbrooke Liquor, Keg ’n Cork or Liquor Select.

Alley Kat Coffee Porter,

Alley Kat Coffee Porter,

Alley Kat Coffee Porter, Edmonton, AB
Slow and steady wins the race, and after 20 years of brewing great beer and growing organically, Alley Kat is definitely winning. A brewery that lives and breathes community, Alley Kat sources locally, employs your neighbours and brews sustainably. The coffee porter combines Edmonton’s Transcend Coffee with roasted malts to produce a dark, delicious porter.

Unity Brew ESB

Unity Brew ESB

Unity Brew 2015 Extra Special Bitter (ESB), Edmonton, AB
Craft brewers are a collegial crowd, none more so than Alberta brewers. Each year the members of the Alberta Small Brewers Association gather to create a collaborative “Unity” brew. In 2015 they brewed at Alley Kat, creating an earthy, malty Extra Special Bitter. While too many cooks can spoil the broth, too many brewmasters is just enough.

Old Skhool

Old Skhool

Olds College Old Skhool, Olds, AB
Olds College Brewery is a teaching brewery, with all revenue from beer sales supporting the college’s brewmaster education program, and through that, the Alberta brewing industry. Olds’ graduates are helping to transform Alberta’s craft beer industry, using skills they learned in brewing beer like this rich, roasty English brown ale.

Phillips Benefit Brew

Phillips Benefit Brew

Phillips Benefit Brew 2015, Victoria, BC
Phillips Brewing began in 2001 in an Esquimalt garage and today is Vancouver Island’s biggest brewer. Phillips has been deeply engaged with their community every step of the way. In 2016 Phillips is brewing an oatmeal brown ale as their Benefit Brew, with funds from sales of the beer going to the Edmonton Area Land Trust.

Golden Goddess Ale,

Golden Goddess Ale,

Persephone Golden Goddess Ale, Gibsons, BC
Persephone is a completely socially-engaged brewery near Gibsons BC, in business to do good – including making good beer. Partially owned by the Association for Community Living, Persephone employs people from disadvantaged groups in the brewery and on their 11-acre malt and hops farm. Golden Goddess is a refreshing, flavourful English pale ale.

Great Western Original

Great Western Original

Great Western Original 16 Canadian Pale Ale, Saskatoon, SK
Great Western Brewing’s back-story is delightful. In 1989 Molson moved to close Saskatoon’s former Carling O’Keefe brewery. But 16 employees stepped up to save their jobs by buying the brewery, founding Great Western as an employee-owned brewery. Original 16 is a tribute to those founders, an easy-drinking blonde ale in the lager mode.

Peter Bailey works for a social enterprise aimed at empowering and educating everyone: a public library. He tweets as @Libarbarian.